In Michael Parker's new novel, Joel Dunn Jr. tells the story of how he did everything he could to save his family after his mother left and his father's tenuous hold on sanity unraveled. On a journey from the town of Trent, North Carolina, to the coast, Joel and his little brother Tank thread their way back to their mother, fueled by potato chips, Coke, and the soundtrack of the powerful soul music that their daddy taught them to love. Always keeping the faith that their mother is waiting for them, they move from one kindly stranger to another on their odyssey, Joel ever certain they are being guided to her door: "I was being passed from person to person," he says, "on my way back into her wide open window." Caught between the endless idealism of childhood and the sobering tests of adulthood, Joel and Tank bravely negotiate their way through a landscape of love and beauty, abandonment and betrayal, to learn that the one sure thing is often right by your side. (GoodReads)
Narrated by a 14-year old boy, If You Want Me to Stay is above all an incredible example of the effective use of narrative voice. Joel Jr. is an incredibly interesting narrator with a voice that is both unique and believable. Having lived in North Carolina for a good portion of my life, I can tell you that I have met boys who talk exactly like Joel. He is sometimes funny, sometimes cynical, almost always honest, and completely real. But Parker's use of voice goes far beyond the simple mastery of dialect. Where Parker really shines is in how he gets into Joel's head. If You Want Me to Stay starts with a sort of free narrative style, with Joel as the narrator. He tells the story, but with little asides, thoughts, and observations thrown in that make it feel like a real person talking or thinking. What I really loved about the style was that as the novel progressed Joel's narration became more stream-of-consciousness than not. The last few sections are in a nearly impressionistic style, painting the images Joel sees and mixing them with his thoughts, feelings, memories, and the music that courses throughout the novel. It's a great device, because the narrative gets more stream of consciousness as the boys get more tired and confused, making the style match the content and theme of the novel. Parker's use of voice and narrative style was by far my favorite part of If You Want Me to Stay, and I would recommend it for that alone.
Now, there were a few things that I thought could have been better about this novel. While I loved the way that Parker weaved music into the story, I thought that it was occasionally too much, especially towards the end. I understand why he chose to use the music, and it worked very well thematically, but sometimes it was so much as to make Joel's character seem unrealistic. No-one thinks about music that much, no mater what they've been through. Since Joel was otherwise an incredibly lifelike and well-drawn character, this stuck out a bit and bothered me. Also, while I found the story be be generally well-paced and well-structured, there was a part just before the end that went on for too long, and that threw the structure off and made it drag a bit. Other than those two things, the book was very well put together and flowed perfectly from one scene to the next. Those two problems were more slight annoyances than real issues.
Overall, If You Want Me to Stay was a thoroughly enjoyable novel. It was fast-paced and interesting without sacrificing good writing or round characters. While it isn't something I'd call a modern classic, it is definitely something I would recommend to anyone who wants their summer reading to be both enjoyable and intelligent. I can assure you that I will be picking up another of Michael Parker's books again in the near future.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommendations: Realistic characters, great setting, a great summer read. Some profanity and violence.